Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Setting Up the Right Writers Group

By Judith Yates Borger

Before I began writing mysteries I asked my experienced mystery-writer friends for advice. The best piece  of advice I got was "Be careful whose opinion you ask."

Today, seven years later, I couldn't agree more. It's the most important tool a writer has.

So, how can a writer choose her writers group? I suggest that she think through what kind of feedback she needs. For example, I'm in two writers groups each chosen for different reasons. They both meet on Tuesdays, one weekly in the morning, the other monthly in the evening.

There are four of us in the weekly morning writers group, each of us with different strengths. One member  is a picky, picky copy editor, who catches my many mistakes. If you've read my posts you know I need her. Another member uses words like a fine violinist. She feels the prose rather than reads it. She tells me when the emphasis is wrong or the pacing is off.  The third member can look at the sweep of my work and tell me when it needs a different direction or a certain character needs better development. The three of them are wonderful writers but they're not mystery writers.

The monthly evening group is comprised of three mystery writers. If they find a typo or grammatical error they circle it and move on. There's no discussion of word choice, timing or character. We three spend most of our time talking about plots. Who gets killed? When? Where? What's the protagonist's motivation? What's the best device that will put the murderer in the right place at the right time to do the deed? Is a particular plot point plausible?

The two groups also have different rules. The weekly group requires that everyone bring at least one three-sentence paragraph, but no more than eight double-spaced pages. The idea is that no matter how complicated our lives are we can all write at least one paragraph. The discipline keeps us moving ahead. We meet at a coffee shop, with free easy parking, at 11:30 a.m. sharp. If someone is late the others go on without her. The tardy one's work is considered last so if we run out of time before the 1:30 p.m. adjournment that person's work gets the least attention.

As you might expect, the monthly mystery writers group is much more relaxed. We meet in each other's homes, 7 ish and wrap up about 8:30 p.m. Snacks are served. There are no requirements on what we submit to the group and it's ok to show up with nothing. The discussion meanders as we brainstorm.

I've been in writers groups that fell apart. There were many reasons, as I recall. In one people routinely showed up late and unprepared. In another one member monopolized the discussion mostly trying to prop up her own ego. She didn't know what she was talking about. In another absenteeism for no good reason was a common theme.

Is it unusual to be in two writers groups? I don't know. Probably. But being in two makes me feel twice as accountable in my work.

What's your experience? Are you even in one? How many members do you have? How often, and where, do you meet? What is the most important rule of characteristic of your group?

Let us know, please.


  1. I'm also curious how you find writers groups. Judith, did you cultivate yours or join them already formed? Thanks for the post and thoughts.

  2. I belong to writers organizations but I've never found a small writing group that works for me. I'd love to join a group...if I could find one that writes in my genre and is in the same publishing phase as I am. But so many writers talk about how much they get out of their groups that I stay open to the idea.

  3. Early on, I was in a fabulous online critique group. There were three of us, and we each grew as writers. Now, we're more friends and emotional supporters for one another, and much less critiquers with the exception of the stray sentence or two.

    Your monthly brainstorming group sounds wonderful and creative, and that you managed to fall in with a group of four differently driven writers is a gift.

    I'm like LJ . . . open to the idea, but a little tentative.

  4. I belong to a writer's critique group. we meet weekly, evenings, have for nearly 20 years. Started with zero published authors, now include 4 published authors. One or two readers each week. detailed analysis/discussion of the work presented. Mostly crime fiction.
    Disagreements occur, but never personal. Egos are left in the street. A fine group with great insights and varied help.

  5. My first live crit group (The Pregnant Pigs) definitely helped my writing. I was a spankin' brand newbie and they were all taking "second career" college courses in writing. And, as with yours, they each had different strengths. One knew my characters better than I did. Another was a poet, and looked at my word choices.

    Deb Dixon said she no longer has a crit group, but she has a brainstorming group -- sounds like that's what your mystery group is.

    Right now, I'm recently moved and have 2 on-line crit partners. We've been together for years, and again, they have different strengths and focuses.

    What we don't do anymore is spend time back-patting. We need to find our flaws and fix them.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  6. Tough is good. Without a cp, I fell back into a habit I'd broken my first year of learning this craft: a terrible case of "was-itis" hit me, and I'm still paying the price.

    My sister recently joined an online critique group, headed up by one of her former cps. The thing each submitter must agree to is to "check their tears at the door."

  7. Thanks for all your comments, guys.
    Tammy -- I met two of the members of my morning group when we took a fiction writing class together the The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. We can thank our instructor, Mary Gardner, who did speed interviews with all 20 students, then put us in groups of 3 or 4. We, and one who has since drifted away, were together. After the class ended, we kept meeting for a couple of years. Then life intervened and the group broke apart. Today, five years later, we've reunited.

    One of the first lessons from Mary was how to critique. She even handed out a take home on it. The key point was that first you point out the positives about what you're critiquing. Then suggest places for improvement.

    While I agree, Terry, that we don't need back patting, we all need encouragement. This is a very lonely business.

    The Twin Cities have about 40 mystery writers and we mostly know each other from Sisters in Crime and the fabulous independent book store, Once Upon A Crime.
    I think the best way to meet other writers is going to their signings, hanging out at bookstores and taking classes.

    I suggest, however, if you get in a group that doesn't meet your needs, get out, and form another until you're in the right place.

    Peg: What's 'Was-itis"? Maybe it's a diagnosis for something I already do.

    Carl: You have a wonderful group and you've all done very well.

    LJ: I doubt you'll find a group in the same publishing phase. I find it helpful that we're in slightly different phases. We can help each other by sharing our experiences. But I do think its important to have mystery writers in your group, because the needs of mystery readers are somewhat different from those of literary fiction writers.

  8. Like others have said, I'd love to find/create a small group to support and be supported by. You'd think I'd be able to find one in Orange County, but most of my writer friends live near San Diego, for some reason.

    I was once in an online writer's "group" of two - myself and another writer. First of all, two people do not make a group. Second, over time we found that we loved each other's style, but not each other's genre. She loves to write big, sweeping, thrilling romance (think Die Hard meets Titanic). At the time, I was writing literary fiction. After I had implemented just half of her notes, I found I had written a romance. A really bad one. We agreed to just be friends instead of a "group".

  9. Great post, Judy! I'll be sending several of my writer clients here.

  10. The problem I hear most from writers is that they can't seem to find enough people interested in forming a group. That, and the issue of "chemistry" which can send a them into a downward spiral once they've finally formed. The wrong people can be more destructive the constructive. Having said that, when it does work it's a truly remarkable experience...or so I hear. I've never been fortunate enough.


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